Gone to the Dark Side
A canoeist kayaks the Abitibi River
By Kevin Callan
I jumped the gun a bit when the tourism gang from the Timmins region (Ontario,Canada) invited me up to participate in the Great Canadian Kayak Challenge. I agreed to race; basically because I love the Timmins area. Problem is, I'm a canoeist, not a kayaker. I also don't have much of a competitive spirit. The last race I took part in was when I was eight at a church picnic; running across a field balancing a hard-boiled egg on a spoon. I'm definitely not an anti-kayak like some of my canoe mates, but to me, the joy of paddling is to gently glide a canoe across a mist covered lake, not squeezing into tight neoprene and propel myself across the water as fast as possible, looking something like a dog wiping its butt across the carpet. But then again, I love the north, so there was no way I was going to pass up being there for such an event.
Of course, there was still the issue of not knowing how to kayak. For that I contacted an outfitter I knew from Smooth Rock Falls - Rick Isaacson of Howling Wolf Expeditions. His idea seemed simple enough. Rick would take me kayaking down the Abitibi River a few days before the race to teach me the techniques needed not to come in last in the race, or at least not look like a total geek when getting in and out of the boat.
To give myself more time practicing out on the Abitibi River, I took a flight out of Toronto to the city of Timmins. The extra cost was well worth it since Rick picked me up at the airport and had us launching at the Abitibi Canyon Hydro Dam by mid-day.
Abitibi Canyon Dam was built in the early 1930's and once housed enough people to label it a good-sized village, made up of 70 houses, a church, a school, a post office and a place to buy groceries and alcohol. Lots of alcohol. It's now a ghost town - a real ghost town. Two monuments are the basis of the hauntings. One is dedicated to at least four bodies (rumor has it that the number is as high as 200) who lie dead, encased in the concrete dam during the initial construction. It's titled "The Sons of Martha" and has some of the most profound poetry inscribed on all four sides. A second marker gives homage to the ten hydro employees who died one foggy morning in 1976 after their plane crashed into the hydro tower 250 meters northwest of the dam. With such a high body count, the ghost stories have become legendary.
We drove over the wall of cement - one side holding back the Abitibi River and the other revealing the deep canyon lined with a mix of cement and hard granite. Rick then turned down a secondary road to reach the access point downriver.
Joining us were Drew Gauley, the cameraman and photographer for the trip, and Rick's son Luis. Luis' job was to motor Drew around in a square-stern canoe to get good footage of Rick showing me, the greenhorn, how to kayak. And the lessons started the moment I tried to take a seat.
What an embarrassment. Getting in and out of a kayak without getting wet, and retaining my dignity, seemed next to impossible. Rick, however, showed me a couple of maneuvers to make me look somewhat graceful. My preferred entry was sliding my butt across the paddle shaft anchored behind the seat and braced against the mud-caked shoreline of the Abitibi. It wasn't until my third attempt that I slipped into the drivers seat without mishap.
Next was a lesson on forward motion. It's definitely not like canoeing. The power comes from rotating the torso, not propulsion of the arms. Keeping the blade low, at least eye level, and pulling it through the water from tip to hip were a couple other pointers. The most important element in coach Rick's arsenal, however, was to make sure to relax each stroke. We had over 40 kilometers to cover in less than two days and the only way for me to make the distance and still have enough Tylenol induced muscle power to get over the finish line was to relax each stroke.
A pit stop was made at the old site of New Post Fur Trade Again, thankfully we had Rick as the guide. I would have definitely passed this area by. The only evidence of the site being a past homestead and trading post were patches of rose bushes and rhubarb peeking through clumps of aspen, birch and wild raspberries. The spot was also flat, a rarity along the banks of the Abitibi. The Hudson Bay post was established in 1867-68 to entice the local natives to trade here rather than going south to Temiskaming. It was also placed at the end of the long portage around the rapids that existed before the construction of the dam. Boats traveling up from Moose Factory were exchanged for canoes traveling downstream and cargo was exchanged. A big white clapboard house was built for the Hudson Bay Co. factor, along with an even larger store and two smaller buildings to accommodate the Cree trading at the post. When the railway was extended it meant the end of New Post and by 1924 it was left abandoned.
Not much remained intact at New Post due to the dam fluctuating water levels and continually eroding the river bank. Rick took us further back, through a large a stand of mature poplar and stunted spruce, to view the gravesite. Here, a number of Hudson Bay workers and Cree were buried. Stone markers and wrought-iron fences mark the European graves and cedar planks mark the Native sites, and growing amongst them all were various species of flowers, introduced here by an elaborate garden once cared for behind the horse stable and dairy. It was a haunting place to be and we paid homage to the people who lived - and died - here along the Abitibi before heading back to the river.
Our first night camp was had up stream on New Post Creek, at the base of New Post Falls. We chose a sand bar which Rick said would be fine to pitch a tent on as long as we broke camp before mid-morning. The waters of the Abitibi are completely controlled by hydro dams and levels fluctuate each time cities like Toronto answer their craving for power. Rick, and his son Lewis, obviously new the river. We were a tad late packing up and almost had our tent float away on us.
A rough, steep and muddy trail runs along the right side of the falls and the crown jewel of our trip on the Abitibi was walking up along side the 120 meter cascade and gawking down at silt-laden chocolate colored water that connects the Abitibi with the Little Abitibi, two rivers that run parallel with each other. This link makes for an excellent future canoe route to try out, paddling down the Little Abitibi and back up Canyon Dam or down river to take the train back out. Problem is, New Post Falls is slated for a dam soon!
Rick Isaacson is a known advocate against most future dams in the region - including New Post. He definitely doesn't hold back his feelings to anyone. I wouldn't classify him as a blind, emotional activist. At fist glance, maybe. But the more I got to know Rick, the more I realized how insightful he was, a deep thinker, a northerner that cared for the rich history of the region but also of its future. His passion has gained him allies with local Cree and Ojibway, politicians and hydro workers, and of southern Ontario canoeists and kayakers. On a recent trip he even guided Gordon Downie of Tragically Hip and Robert F. Kennedy - representing Waterkeepers Canada. It's also made him some enemies. But that comes with the territory I guess.
From New Post Falls we paddled downstream towards a second hydro-electric dam at Otter Rapids and it took us most of the day to navigate the twenty five kilometers of river. Along the way I worked on improving my paddle strokes before the big race. The Abitibi was a perfect testing ground for me. The banks are wide and the wind can build some solid waves. Being able to maneuver the kayak, especially without the rudder dipped down in the back, was a challenge. Rick went over the main steering strokes; the first being the forward sweep. Again, it all had to do with the rotation of the torso. To make the kayak turn right, I would leaning forward and placing the left blade of the paddle up towards the front, by my feet, and then sweeping the blade out in an arc until it reaches the back of the kayak. The opposite maneuver was used to go left. The reverse back sweep is the reverse of the forward sweep, and by alternating the two I was able to spin the kayak in circles. Then their was the stern rudder and bow rudder, the cross bow rudder, the hanging, standard and sculling draw - all of which were somewhat similar to what I use to paddle a canoe. What wasn't comparable was the art of leaning the kayak in one direction to move it in the other. This tactic was absolutely beneficial to keeping the kayak in a continual forward motion but still in a straight line.
The steering techniques came in handy when we reached a cluster of islands near the Otter Rapids Dam. Here, where the current squeezed through mounds of granite and the landscape looked more like what you'd find along Georgian Bay than in the James Bay lowlands, moderate swifts and large boils of water made for some interesting maneuvers to stay upright in the kayak. I kept close to Rick's boat here and followed his every move and came out of the rough water without mishap.
At first glance, the islands looked like a great place to spend our last night on the river. No campsites existed, however, and we were forced to set up our tents alongside the helicopter pad at the Otter Rapids Dam site. The large clearing was on the right but we took out on the left, loaded our gear in Rick's son's truck and shuttled it across the dam.
This is where the road ends in the north. The railway continues on to Moosonee and back to Fraserdale, near Canyon Dam. Some paddlers doing this route will flag down the train for a ride back, but we drove to make it back in time for the big kayak race in Timmins Great Canadian Kayak Challenge. It's a long drive, of course, and Rick and I arrived twenty minutes before the first heat of kayakers - titled the celebrity challenge - paddled off the starter line. I was one of the chosen "celebrities" and quickly floated my kayak, still with its Abitibi mud smeared along its hull, alongside the mayor, police chief, fire marshall, a couple of radio hosts and an assortment of councillors. It was an odd feeling to be some southern Ontario canoe guy - who turned kayaker for the week - trying to mingle with a bunch of local northern Ontario heros who had been training for the race all season. I felt somewhat like a donkey put in the same starting gate as thoroughbred horses.
Just as I started to mingle with everyone and feel a little less intimidated, the starter horn blew and off we went down the Mattagami River. It was like a game of bumper boats at first, each kayak trying to push into the lead all at the same time. In the panic I drifted off towards the right bank and separated myself from the crowd. From there I simply went into the same paddling momentum I had out on the Abitibi, remembering the key instructions given by Rick. I kept my blade low and propelled it from tip to hip, used my torso rather than my arms, and made sure to relax each and every stroke. By doing so, I reached the turn around point with a collection of good paddlers: the mayor, a councillor and a Quebec radio host. We stayed together in a pack right up until the last few hundred meters. That's when my lack of competitiveness kicked in and the others where able to get ahead of me. Except for the mayor. He was still deck to deck with me until just before the finish line, and then, rather pushing myself to try and pass him, I placed my paddle down, yelled at the crowd "Should I let the mayor win?" There were some laughs from the audience - together with some distasteful glares - followed by a media frenzy that had me promising on radio and in print to return to Timmins (and to my training grounds on the Abitibi River) to beat the mayor in next year's Great Canadian Kayak Challenge.
It was a great few days spent in the north. I was able to paddle one of the most historic rivers in Ontario. Get a kayak lesson form Rick Isaacson of Howling Wolf Expeditions -Rick won gold in his race - the masters elite division. Way to go Rick! More importantly, however, a true-born canoeist like myself was able to enter a world class kayak race, and not only came in 6th. place, but entered and exited the boat without looking like a complete idiot.
Can't wait until next year.
Here's a video clip of Kevin's adventure on the Abitibi River:
Kevin Callan is the author of 11 books including "Wilderness Pleasures" and "The Happy Camper." A regular keynote speaker at major North American canoeing and camping expos for over 20 years, he has received three National Magazine Awards and four film awards, including top award at the prestigious Waterwalker Film Festival. Callan lives in Peterborough, Ontario, birthplace of the modern-day canoe.
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